Friday, 24 February 2017

Two perspectives on arts and public health

Andrew Fletcher, PhD researcher, Faculty of Health & Life Sciences, Northumbria University

Engagement with the arts and/or creative practice benefits wellbeing in multiple ways. I am a musician and relatively new to public health. This post argues that arts and culture should have greater prominence in health and social care.

So what of arts-based therapies? Compared to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for example, such programmes are not heavily promoted. Perhaps this is right; CBT is cheap and effective, whereas things like music therapy are often reserved for individuals with more complex needs. But this hierarchy contributes to the idea that arts-based therapies are ‘alternative’ – potentially placing them in the same category as, say, homeopathy. This is not a helpful perception, but anyone who’s tried to advocate for creative therapies will know it exists.

Then there’s ‘evidence-based medicine’, which is of critical importance, but whose dominance has been challenged.2,3  This is particularly relevant to approaches to health and wellbeing that are seen as ‘alternative’, which still seem to remain the preserve of those who can afford to try more ‘esoteric’ interventions – thereby reinforcing inequality. So what’s the response? Promote holism*; make arts therapies mainstream; emphasise their part in everyday life; make creativity and cultural engagement as vital as exercise, healthy eating or social interaction. The idea that creativity is intrinsic to wellbeing needs to be established in the early years and beyond, and to neglect this idea is missing a trick.

Why do people do art? Usually to express a political statement, to communicate a specific feeling or sentiment, or to satisfy some intangible ‘urge’. Making a painting to hang on your bedroom wall cultivates a more pleasurable living environment; putting your kid’s collage on the fridge boosts self-esteem; and who never listens to music? Creative practice, in one way or another, feeds into numerous wellbeing outcomes. Artists know this instinctively, yet policy around art and culture focuses on tourism and/or entertainment income, and a vague ‘intrinsic’ social value. Lip service is paid to health, but as Tiffany Jenkins says: “If you’re competing with hospitals, you’ll lose”.4

But art and wellbeing are significant components of the lived experience. They make us human. They sit at the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy** and most people understand the inherent value of culture to either social or personal wellbeing. If prevention really is better than cure, we must pay attention to the cultural-wellbeing landscape and the atmosphere these concepts exist in. Perceptions are changed through innovative and creative information delivery – so creativity not only has its own wellbeing outcomes, it’s also the key to shifting arts and culture towards being a major pillar in overall wellbeing.

I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if the perceptions of arts therapies were different. Stickley (2014)5 outlines one potential scenario as follows:
The year is 2080. A new textbook has been published. The book is called ‘A Century of Healthcare’ and I would like to quote from this book:

"For most of the last century it was unusual for people to be treated holistically. Incredible as it sounds today, healthcare systems separated physical interventions from anything they referred to as "mental". Thus a dualism existed and people were treated as divided objects. At the time, there were many attempts at holism, especially by those who practised alternative or complimentary therapies. However, anything that remotely threatened the domination of the medical model was largely side-lined and researchers gave little credence to anything that was not considered scientific.

We should however give a great deal of credit to those who foresaw the potential contribution that the arts and humanities could make to healthcare and wellness but they operated in a narrow scientific paradigm that gave little acceptance to holism…”
The contexts in which creative practice occurs are complex, but the benefits are multiple and well-known. The key here is changing perceptions. This takes time, but perhaps Stickley’s vision will bear out. I hope so.

* The idea that the human experience of wellbeing is social, cultural and complex, and extends far beyond medical definitions of health.
** 'Self actualisation' appears at the apex of psychologist Abraham Maslow's 'hierarchy of needs' model and includes in its definition (among other things): "expressing one's creativity".

1. Various demographic data available from
2. Greenhalgh, T., Howick, J. & Maskrey, N. (2014). Evidence based medicine: a movement in crisis? BMJ g3725.
3. Stickley, T. (2015). A little rant about evidence, available from:
4. Jenkins, T. (2015). Front Row debate (23rd Feb, 2015). Are artists owed a living? Online: BBC.
5. Monologue delivered at ESRC funded Seminar Series on Arts, Health & Wellbeing, 15th September 2014.

1 comment:

  1. For more on music and health education see

    The summary is on page 41.

    How to access the accompanying Spotify playlists on page 10.

    Mark Burns